In 1947 former racecar driver Enzo Ferrari and his wife, Laura, launched their own company to manufacture cars bearing the Ferrari name. Ten years later, the company was in trouble, and Ferrari the man was, too: His enterprise was going broke, and he was anguished by the recent death of his 24-year-old son. His marriage to Laura had deteriorated, even as his relationship with another woman, Lina Lardi, who had borne him a son roughly 10 years earlier, continued apace. This is the starting point for Michael Mann’s Ferrari: Call it a story of fast cars and vexed women.
Ferrari, making its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, zings along with a sleek, greyhound energy—it’s a supple, elegant film, the kind of picture you’d expect from a vigorous craftsman like Mann, who hasn’t made a movie since the 2015 cybercrime thriller Black Hat. (Its source material is Brock Yates’ 1991 book Enzo Ferrari: The Man and the Machine.) Mann isn’t the most emotionally expressive director around, and Ferrari never strays far from its manly-man preoccupations; when it comes to real human feelings, Mann isn’t great at digging beneath the surface. Still, this is a pretty good-looking surface, and once you make peace with the convention of having American or Spanish actors playing Italian characters by speaking accented English—let’s call it the House of Gucci syndrome—Ferrari is reasonably engaging. The racing scenes, in particular, are thrilling, though they’re mitigated by a sense of horror. At one point, a driver calls the sport “our deadly passion, our terrible joy,” and he’s not kidding.
Adam Driver, his hair dusted a silvery gray, plays the company’s leonine figurehead; Penelope Cruz is his justifiably pissed-off wife and business partner. The company they run together is on shaky ground, and their marriage is shakier, but Mann opens the movie in happier times, with black-and-white footage of a race from Enzo’s youth. Behind the wheel, Driver’s young-Enzo face suggests both intense concentration and unhinged bravado—he’s a guy who’ll have a little, or maybe a lot, of everything, please.
But the Enzo we see a few decades later has had some of the life beaten out of him. He’s still handsome and swaggering, happy to play the great figurehead of his glamorous company, but he now knows he can’t control everything. His son’s death haunts him, and he speaks more than once of having lost two friends, Guiseppe Campari and Baconin Borzacchini, on the same day, at Monza in 1933. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, and as racing royalty, Enzo is really feeling its weight.
The only place he seems to feel any joy is at the home he shares, part-time, with longtime mistress Lina (played, earnestly but a bit awkwardly, by Shailene Woodley). But there’s trouble there, too: their young son is about to make his confirmation, and Lina argues, reasonably, that the boy should be officially recognized as a Ferrari. Enzo balks—he’s got a lot of man stuff to think about, and right now, this isn’t a priority. Meanwhile, Laura, knowing that her husband has other emotional entanglements but completely unaware that he’s raising a son with another woman, fires a bullet at his head and intentionally misses. As a glammed-down Cruz plays her, she’s a glowering mite, a tiny thundercloud you don’t want to mess with.
Entwined within the contours of this not easily managed love triangle is Enzo’s desire for his cars to win, win, win, every time. After one of his star drivers dies during a practice run—Mann and his cinematographer Erik Messershmidt show him as a tiny figure flying through the air after being jettisoned from his vehicle, a vision of horror that presages more to come—Enzo immediately puts his faith in a newcomer, the dashing Spaniard Alfonso De Portago (Gabriel Leone), who comes accessorized with a glamorous actress-girlfriend, Linda Christian (played by Sarah Gadon, who has almost nothing to do).
Even though Enzo seems to care more about his cars than about people, he does show affection for the team he’s put together for the Mille Miglia, a grueling open-road race that demands endurance and a great deal of nervy driving. He’s hard on the newbie De Portago, but he still has faith in him. He’s more paternal toward Jack O’Connell’s boyish veteran Peter Collins, and he enjoys ribbing one of his oldest friends, Patrick Dempsey’s Piero Taruffi, a foxy elder who proves he’s still got the goods.
These are the players in the movie’s most stunning sequence, so beautifully shot and edited, it could serve as an action masterclass by itself. As these drivers zoom and swerve through towns and cities, along country roads lined with puffy, protective bales of hay and urban streets crowded with cheering spectators, their internal logic is translated into motion we can see. When they shift gears, we intuitively know why; as they skim and swoop around their fellow drivers and opponents, we get a sense of how much concentration their maneuvering demands. It’s glorious to watch, though even if you don’t know the real story behind this particular race, you can see tragedy looming. Mann dramatizes that horrific event in a way that maximizes its shock value to the point of prurience; it’s maybe too much—this is one place where some discretion would have been advisable.
And after this point, as Ferrari rounds into the final stretch, the movie loses some of its focus. It’s never quite explained—not even in the expository titles that close the movie—how, exactly, Enzo Ferrari saved his company. And Mann glosses over his protagonist’s response to that tragic 1957 Mille Miglia. Did he feel any responsibility, or even sadness? Driver’s performance has a courtly gravitas. He does a great job of suggesting the feelings, like an invisible outline in the air, of a guy who probably wasn’t great at showing them. But at times his Enzo is just too opaque, and that has more to do with the script than with Driver’s capabilities. Mann is a fantastic technician, but his perpetual coolness is a liability. He seems to want us to understand this complex, deeply private man, one who was both revered and reserved. But in the end, he’s more interested in Enzo Ferrari’s mystique than in his humanity. You walk out feeling there’s got to be more to the story—even as Mann, ever meticulous, probably thinks he’s doled out more than enough.
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